Zócalo Public Square: John Singleton and Wim Wenders on our lust for violence and losing touch with reality

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John Singelton and Wim Wenders

Warren moderated a Zócalo Public Square panel last year, during which John Singleton and Wim Wenders addressed the issue of violence and cinema. From the Zócalo website:

The tragic shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, has opened up a larger conversation about how violence translates from film to real life. When directors Wim Wenders and John Singleton visited Zócalo at the Getty Center in fall 2011 for a conversation about how Los Angeles exports its images to the world, they both talked about how the films made in L.A. include violent images that are disconnected from reality and can cause suffering in the larger community. What does watching violence onscreen do to a society?

Violence Has Become Unreal

I left L.A because the image that is the product of the city had too much impact on the city itself. A big product of the city is, of course, movies—fiction—but a big byproduct is violence. And the city that creates a lot of violent imagery and exports it into the world, in the end, I realized, was suffering from it too much. It was suffering from its own product. And you couldn’t go anywhere anymore without crossing all these signs on the lawn that said you would be immediately shot. And all the advertising for security—it was the biggest product in the city. Violence and security. So I figured, if this city that produced all these dreams has a future where it’s going to produce only nightmares, I’d better get out of here.

I realized, the city is so much driven by its own product, and so much driven by the fact these negative images sell so much better all over the world and become such a more attractive product, that the city suffers like hell over its product. And I realized I didn’t want to live in that environment. I don’t have any kids, but I wanted to live in a city that had more positive energy toward the future. I feel Los Angeles is being buried by its own projections, its own nightmares that it keeps producing. It used to be they made fantastic, wonderful dreams, and now it’s one out a 100 films that is not senseless, that is not without any reality. The loss of reality drove me out of Los Angeles, because the movies were more and more about nothing, or about fantasy. The more they were CGI-made, the more they were digitally produced, the less there was anything that you could touch, the less sense of place was there, the less reality was actually there. And the people who were fed these realityless movies actually are suffering now from a deep loss of reality.

The kids that you see in Los Angeles—I’m horrified, I’m horrified. They have no appreciation for anything that is real. And violence is also one of these products. It’s not real in these movies; I mean, you can kill a million people but there is no reality to it. And that’s why I left. Even today, I’m back for two weeks now, and I’m suffering from that constant loss of reality that people live in in Los Angeles. I mean, not the other half, the other half that drives the city and that do the work, they are in a different reality. They are reality-based. But most of the people I meet, I’m sorry to say, I think they are all suffering from a disease that is the loss of reality.

—Wim Wenders

Violence Has No Consequences Anymore

Every time I try and make a reality-based picture, I just get, “Oh, we can’t do that.” But if I do something more fantastic, then it’s like “Oh, hey.” There was a time in my career, and I’ll admit to this, when I said I would never have a violent act in my picture for the sake of entertainment. But I had to give that up to have a career. Pretty much the first four movies I did, every time something violent happened it was for a certain reason, and it made an emotional impact to have somebody hurt or harmed. All the way up to a movie I made called Rosewood, which was about the 1920 massacre in Florida. After that picture, I didn’t work for many, many years, and it was hard for me to do anything until I did a studio film, Shaft, with Samuel Jackson. It was a shoot’em up detective thing.

And there was something that was lost in me, I felt, in terms of me as filmmaker, because while the picture was very financially successful, I didn’t feel fulfilled by it. There’s an irony, because when you show so many depictions of violence—whether it is in shoot’em ups, or horror, or in destroying the city over and over again—there’s no jeopardy. They have a generation of people who will grow up that don’t feel that there is any jeopardy at anything, whether or not it is at a small level or a big level, and I do believe that’s something that has been lost.

—John Singleton

*Photo by Sarah Rivera.